LIBR/TU research to be published in Nature Neuroscience

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Research findings could lead to new treatments for anorexia and similar disorders

Research conducted by University of Tulsa Assistant Professor Kyle Simmons, TU graduate student Jason Avery, and their colleagues at the Laureate Institute of Brain Research (LIBR) and the National Institutes of Health will be published in the November issue of Nature Neuroscience, one of the most prestigious neuroscience research journals in the world. “Simmons’ efforts to explore the organization of a brain structure known as the insula will be featured. The TU group studied the insula’s responses to food images and how they relate to eating disorders such as obesity.

The research presented by Simmons and his colleagues demonstrates that the predominant theories on the insula’s organization may be incorrect. Through the use of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), the researchers studied the insula’s responses to food photos and the taste sensations that foods trigger. 

“The predominant theory about the insula said that the anterior insula should link higher cognition, such as object recognition, with information about the body’s homeostatic needs, like our blood sugar levels, or the amount of carbon dioxide in our blood,” Simmons says. “Instead, we found that this was the role of the mid-insula, and not the anterior insula.”

The research team discovered that the mid-insula’s response to food pictures was related to circulating glucose levels. “If the glucose level was high, it didn’t respond much to foods, but if the glucose was low, it responded strongly,” Simmons says.

Previous findings supported the idea that the insula’s rear portions reacted to the senses while the frontal insula controlled the bodily responses required to maintain normal function. However, Simmons’ research suggests the insula’s frontal region helps humans recognize food regardless of the body’s needs, and more posterior regions of the insula alter their response subject to the body’s current state. Simmons says the discovery could lead to the development of new treatments and therapies for anorexia and similar disorders.

"One of the things we hope to do now at LIBR is understand how different types of eating disorders, such as anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating might be related to a breakdown in the insula’s sensitivity to signals from the body and its energy needs,” he says. “We think this could even relate to why some people struggle with obesity, and it may point the way to new interventions for obesity and eating disorders.”

Gail Ellis